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Growing Pains: The different stages of learning a new Language

Time November 23rd, 2015 in 2015 Fall, Argentina, College Study Abroad, First Generation Scholars | 1 Comment by

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

-Anaïs Nin

As of today, November 23, I have been in Buenos Aires, Argentina for 127 days. The time is flying by as the end of the semester approaches, and I have taken time to reflect on my thoughts about learning a new language, Spanish.

I would call my first few months of being in Argentina the “sponge” stage, where I was absorbing and listening to much more Spanish than I was able to squeeze back out. During my time studying Spanish in the US, I had Caucasian, Colombian, and Spanish teachers, so I was adept to a certain accent. My first day here was, without a doubt, the most overwhelming day for many reasons: the Argentine accent is extremely thick in comparison to what I was accustomed to (think: calle – caYe vs. caSHe, or lluvia – Yuvia vs. SHuvia), I had to get used to new vocabulary, including the informal pronoun vos instead of tú, and this was all happening while I was trying to make sense of my physical surroundings  (where was I in relation to public transportation? how do I get to the supermarket? where do I get food?). I experienced the strongest moments of the “sponge” stage in my Argentine classes, where I understood much more than I could speak. I had to get used to a specific, academic vocabulary while trying to get over the fact that I was painfully shy to speak in general because of the fear of messing up. If anything, the sponge stage helped me become a very good listener and good at reading body language.

The next stage that I experienced would be called the “shell” stage. Whenever I needed to purchase something, I waited to find a purchase that would require the least amount of communication between the cashier/vendor and myself. The fear of not understanding specific vocabulary, not calling an item by its correct name, or pronouncing it incorrectly overrode the many missed opportunities to learn. Small mistakes were not moments to laugh and learn, but instead, I found myself beating myself up internally for not grasping the language. I felt moments of failure and loss, as if the years of learning and practice were not coming to fruition. Mornings became heavy, because I woke up every morning with the same realization : I am in Buenos Aires, Argentina (that’s cool!), and I have to speak all Spanish today (a growing dread). Admittedly, I would stay inside my room for longer periods of time just to avoid having to speak with anyone in Spanish. Although I knew that leaving my comfort zone would cause the most growth, my lack of confidence kept me grounded there for long periods of time. But without this dark valley, I wouldn’t be on higher peaks looking down.

The following stage is the “budding” stage. I became more comfortable using the language as a tool, as if I were becoming more comfortable using a pencil (the tool) to write after a couple attempts. Not all my colors were showing yet, but I began to go out more and feel comfortable having conversations in Spanish. An important aspect to this stage was laughing, not only in terms of having a sense of humor and laughing at jokes, but being able to laugh at myself. If I had to describe this stage with a hashtag, I would use #pequeñoséxitos, which translates to small successes. I began to appreciate the small advances that I made, instead of waiting for dramatic changes in a small amount of time. This change of mind allowed my language to flourish into the next stage.

The current stage that I am in is the “blossoming” stage, in which my comprehension is growing at a small rate, but my verbal expression is increasing exponentially. I am no longer worried about how I am using the tool (Spanish) but rather the small, personal goals (expressing an idea, getting to know another person, etc) are guiding me to use the language subconsciously and naturally to reach these goals. You are not 100% comfortable using the pencil in your hand but that is no longer your concern, because you have accepted that practice and time will continue to naturally refine your ability. I like to call this stage the blossoming stage because I think it is when your personality is able to fully manifest within the language – you’re able to express your ideas and opinions with more ease. You’re able to understand and laugh at jokes as much as you are able to make some. You make mistakes, and that’s the same as a flower getting some shadow on a sunny day – the movement of the sun will cause some shadows throughout the day, but you’ll get moments to shine. Getting corrected is a welcomed gesture rather than a painful moment. I am happy to say that I have reached a comfortable level in my Spanish where I am able to write in my personal journal in Spanish without feeling like the language is inhibiting my ability to express my thoughts and feelings.

Many people in my program are at different stages, and I think I am extremely fortunate to have reached the blossoming stage within 127 days. I have to sincerely thank a couple of people and factors for this rapid advancement. I came into this program with the priority of having thriving friendships in Spanish. After my skiing trip in Bariloche, I have made life-long friends with Bolivians, Colombians, Mexicans, and friends from many more countries, both Spanish-speaking and non-Spanish speaking. I have to thank my friend, Erika, who has made it fun and challenging to learn Spanish together. We have many reflective conversations about the concept of language, the struggles that we have faced, the moments of enlightenment, and listening to her speak Spanish has been fun because she, as a English-speaker, is using Spanish differently than I am (think: accent development, vocabulary, variety in verbs, etc). A big thanks goes to my Bolivian friend, Benjamin, who has an incredible amount of patience for my Spanish-speaking ability; we take turns practicing our second languages and have a mutual deal to correct one another. So far, this has been one of the most challenging, yet rewarding growing pains that I have experienced. I am not sure what the next stages are for my Spanish, but I will welcome the new growing pains with an open mind and heart.


One of the grandest gifts that Argentina gave me

Time October 21st, 2015 in 2015 Fall, Argentina, College Study Abroad, First Generation Scholars | No Comments by

“Si Macri gane la presidencia, me voy del país” 

-My Argentine host sister

I am registered to vote in the US. I only registered because my friend invited me to, but I still have yet to use that right. Many people have asked me why I chose Argentina as my country of study abroad, and one of my growing interests is the political atmosphere here. Unlike the situation for US citizens, Argentine citizens are required to vote. It continues to shock me how politically active, cognizant, and defensive Argentines are about the presidential candidates. While it is easier to keep your political opinions depressed in the US, Argentines are extremely open about their stance. My host mother will mute the T.V. when her most hated candidate has an advertisement on, and she has spoken about how she has best friends who have completely different political opinions than her. My host sister has told me (in spanish) that if XYZcandidate [I can not remember who it was] wins the presidency, she would move out of the country. Although this might have been a joke, I didn’t take the sentiment lightly. I attend la UBA, which is the highly prestigious public university. Being public means that political campaigning is allowed on campuses, unlike the private universities like UCA or USAL. Seeing how much politics dictates the country had inspired me to become more politically involved as well.

For the first time, I made the decision to watch the Democratic Debate. I can absolutely say that this decision was a turning point in my personal, academic, and professional life. I used to fear politics, thinking it was too complex of a debate and I used to undervalue the impact that politics have on my daily life and in my local community. Also, I did not stay up-to-date with the news, so I was not informed enough to have an opinion. Admittedly, I have lived my last few years pretty ignorant of American and international politics. After watching the Democratic Debate, I realized that I do have opinions about various political topics. I realized that I do have an opinion on different candidates running, and watching the Debate allowed me to get to know them more. Most importantly, I realized not only do I have opinions, but there are candidates whose stance align with mine, and that I have the right to vote for a candidate that I support. Now, I absolutely think that politics affect people, from the top-down.

Now, when I see political news (American or Argentine), I don’t shy away from it like I used to. I will forever thank Argentina for showing me how to be a politically responsible citizen, and how much it is a privilege to be able to vote. For the next Presidential election, I will be happily casting a ballot.




Unraveling hidden privileges

Time October 12th, 2015 in 2015 Fall, Argentina, College Study Abroad, First Generation Scholars | No Comments by

“There is in our society a gulf opening up, a kind of cultural apartheid, between those who are brought up to feel our national culture is theirs, to take ownership of it, and enjoy the privileges of that, and those who are completely disfranchised, those – for example – who will never be taken to the theatre to see Shakespeare.”  -Richard Eyre

So far, it is about 3 months into my study abroad experience. One of my top goals for studying here was to learn Spanish, and a part of learning a new language is also adopting a new cultural perspective. Before coming to Argentina, I expected to get a mix between European and Latin American culture while being in this modern city. In a sense, I was almost hoping to remove myself from American culture in order to reunderstand it from a foreigner’s perspective. What I have come to learn to realize is how much American culture permeates culture here, and in all other countries in the world (from speaking with other international students). This aspect is most present in the music scene here.

It is no longer surprising to hear an English song in a cafe, or play in the background of the number one film, or to have some restaurants use English to call themselves a “juicer” or “restaurant” instead of restaurante. Although the majority of this city is made up of immigrants and many working or studying extranjeros, realizing how much American culture permeates the culture here has made me realize what an advantage I have by living in the US and by speaking English fluently.

For example, I have many Latin American artists that I listen to on the regular, but maybe only 3 or 4 of them have made it to the American music scene. These 4 names are easily recognized by a US audience: Shakira, Enrique Iglesias, Prince Royce, and J. Balvin. But other musicians, like Samo, Rombai, and Maramba are not as popular because they have not reached the American audience yet. Upon browsing the albums of Shakira and Enrique Iglesias over the years, it is not surprising to see how, with each new album release, there are more and more songs in English.

We hold the world’s target market and target production in almost every type of media, especially music and film. It is not to say that we have the best quality music or film, but it does speak volumes that we produce more films and more music than what is produced in Latin America. From speaking with international friends who know American music as well as their own local music, I realize how much desire and necessity there is to speak English and to understand its culture. I have felt that living in the United States and having already spoken English, there is little incentive to learn another language or engage with other cultures because we dominate the global cultural movement in media. After now understanding what privilege I have, I am frustrated at the US educational system for not making international relations a more pressing concern within schools. But I am also encouraged to look for opportunities to share the privilege I have by teaching English to those who are not as fluent.


Our cultures may vary, but our values tie us together

Time October 1st, 2015 in 2015 Fall, Argentina, College Study Abroad, First Generation Scholars | No Comments by

“No puede ser. Hay una mujer con un bebé y hay muchos asientos. Porque el abuelo necesita levantarse cuando hay mucha gente joven acá…… Falta cultura…”

These are the words I heard from a group of aroused subte passengers yesterday on my way home. During rush hour, the subte is crowded. Think- sardines in a can, but with humans and much less wiggle room in a moving subway train. A woman with a baby was looking for a seat, and while holding her baby and her bag, had to push through the crowd to get to where the seats were. I immediately knew something was off when she had to ask someone to offer her a seat. Here in Buenos Aires, it is customary to offer your seat to those with limited mobility, older age, pregnant ladies, or women with children, especially when there are not open seats left. Even the supermarkets have lines dedicated to this group out of solidarity and respect. Besides some parking spots being dedicated to veterans and expecting mothers in the United States, this was a new part of Argentine culture that I appreciate fully and will continue to embrace.

It is almost an instinct reaction to offer your seat, so it was alarming to hear her ask for a seat during such a crowded, uncomfortable subte ride. An uncomfortable 20 seconds passed by, as everyone in the subte looked for the “victim” of the request. I say this because it is obviously not comfortable to ride home standing, but the 20 seconds was enough for people to make the decision that their comfort overrode a woman with a baby sitting down. 20 seconds was enough for an older couple to realize that no one was going to offer her a seat, so an older man got up and offered her a seat. 20 seconds was enough for a shared feeling of frustration amongst those standing to grow. As the woman sat down with her baby, an uproar broke within the subte, with a younger guy (maybe 23) breaking the silence with the above quote. The voices of other angry passengers created a mumbled background, but the young boy finished his rant by saying “falta cultura.” These two words stuck with me for the rest of my ride home, and more, because it was so strong for me to hear someone from this culture speak out on a moment that lacked it. I continue to feel a loss of culture as the United States becomes more uniform, especially within the younger generations, so it was a welcomed surprise to see a younger adult hold onto to cultural values. It made me realize that the culture of offering your seat is a norm for them, but for me, it is an addition to my cultural palette. Whether someone offers or doesn’t offer their seat is still a decision that did not exist in my culture in the United States previously. My trip to the Argentina was a journey to expand my language capabilities and add to my cultural palette. Moments like this make me rethink what is culture, what am I giving up or gaining, what have I adapted, and what do Argentines identify as their culture (can you identify culture in the absence of other cultures)?


The importance of perspective and context

Time September 22nd, 2015 in 2015 Fall, Argentina, College Study Abroad, First Generation Scholars | No Comments by

“Humans see what they want to see.”  ― Rick Riordan, The Lightning Thief

I haven’t written much about my academic experience here, so I’d like to take this moment to explore what happened in my first class.

Before I delve into the experience, I’d like to explain briefly the advantage that international students have when studying in Argentina with IFSA Butler. During the first three weeks here, we have a “shopping” period, where we get to try out different classes in different universities without commitment. So within 5 universities, one can only imagine how overwhelming it was to choose potential classes and find the time to attend them all. My first list of interesting classes started with over 30 classes, which was narrowed down to 10 when I put it in my calendar, with me ending up only testing 5 classes. One of these classes was Educación y Diversidad en la UCA (Pontificia Universidad Católica Argentina), a private university located in the beautiful region of Puerto Madero. 

The class consisted of about 30 girls my age, 1 girl from Canada, and 3 students from the US. The teacher was very welcoming to the international students, and spoke clearly and slowly enough for us to digest her spanish. Coming into this class, I was very excited to learn about how Argentina viewed racial issues and how these issues were presented in Education. But after reading the syllabus that was handed out mid-class, I began to realize that “diversidad” was defined by handicapped people (a definition that is very broad). At first, I was disappointed because I was very eager to learn about diversity in terms of racial and ethnic issues. It was only after walking home from the class that I realized that my experiences in the US as a minority shaped my expectations for this class. I clearly had a definition for diversity that I associated in ethnic terms, and had to realize that the same racial issues that are present in the US are not present in Argentina. Trying out this class helped me take a step back from my lens and realize that I have a new lens to add on top of my Vietnamese and American lens – Argentine lens. Lens that are still developing with my perspective, and will only become clearer as my perspective and understanding develops.

Besides this cultural shock, I am thankful for the shopping period which allowed me to take other classes that I found more interest in. I am currently enrolled in 2 classes en la UBA (Universidad de Buenos Aires), both of which I love for their level of difficulty and the enrolled students, whose passion for learning surpasses what I saw in UCA and USAL. Although the 3 weeks of shopping was a headache, in the end, it was vale la pena.


I’m craving a new flavor, and it’s called Spanish

Time September 4th, 2015 in Argentina, College Study Abroad, First Generation Scholars | No Comments by

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone” -Neale Donald Walsch

I cannot express how amazing it is to be here. In a city where the people are happy and friendly. To be a student at the most prestigious school in this country. Something great happens everyday when I’m here in Buenos Aires.

But my experience has been challenged by my strongest reason for being here: Spanish. Before coming onto this trip, I made it clear with myself that I wanted to learn Spanish and master it by the time that I left here in July. During the past month, I’ve had to use Spanish every single day in many settings, whether it was talking to my host mother or simply ordering a Milanesa sandwich. Talking Spanish caused me stress whenever it didn’t come to me easy. Before I knew it, I found myself avoiding many situations just to avoid the embarrassment of looking like a stupid American who couldn’t speak the native language here. I would look at a menu and take 5 minutes just thinking to myself how I would form a 7 word sentence to order a burger. If I couldn’t form the sentence correctly in my mind, I would completely forget even trying. At this point, I had lost my hunger for Spanish. Yes, I wanted to learn it, but I wasn’t motivated to soak in my mistakes and practice the language. This is an experience that many of us feel at some point, where we feel like our ability to speak a new language is closely related to who we are, and it is very easy to feel vulnerable.

It took me a trip to Bariloche and being surrounded by crazy, fun, mexican borrachos for me to realized that sometimes the goal is not to be comfortable, for that’s where you will blossom the most. I had never spoken so much Spanish continuously until this weekend when I traveled with BAIS Argentina for 4 days. Amongst our group were people from all over the world: Germany, France, Singapore, Mexico, Colombia, and many, many more. The only common language amongst us all was Spanish, so it was essentially the only way to communicate with other people. For those who spoke English, we found a beautiful balance between Spanish and English to allow both parties to practice their second language. I loved that there was a mutual understanding amongst us all that we all had second languages that we were not perfect at, but that everyone was practicing it – and having fun practicing too! This trip revived my energy to learn Spanish again and showed me that it can be fun to learn a new language, not stressful.

Moving forward, I am not afraid to make a mistake. I associate learning and speaking Spanish with fun, and not as a stressful activity.

I am hungry for Spanish, and I hope that everyone around me is hungry too.




Self-Discovery at 20 is one thing – Self-Discovery in another country is something else

Time August 19th, 2015 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

“We are all dancing the fine line between being ourselves in a foreign country,

and trying our absolute hardest to fit in at the same time.”

So far, it has been about 3 weeks that I have been in Buenos Aires, and I am absolutely falling in love with my new home more and more everyday. The food is great – very healthy, no processed food, and I’m finally used to how late Argentines eat! The company is incredible – my host mother, Cintia, is an absolute sweetheart and we have been bonding over deep conversations about life (mind you, in Spanish) and watching la tele every weeknight.

For the first time, I visited Barrio Chino (aka BA’s China Town) and strangely felt closer to a feeling I call home. I wanted to buy everything in there, not only because they were cool, but I found myself feeling comfort in any decor that was considered oriental. I think this sense of wonder, confusion, and feeling adrift is how many of us feel in a new environment. Feeling hyperaware about my accent in Spanish, how my clothes may or may not give me off as estadounidense, or deciding whether I should just talk English in the streets with my friends has been an internal struggle that I believe many of us have dealt with. In the U.S., the media targets the woman market with very certain ideals about how a woman should look like, including clothing, makeup, attitude, and so much more that meets the eye. But I have felt easy with the culture around women in Buenos Aires, where makeup is used much less often, where there is not a mainstream style (besides monstrous platform boots), and here exists a community that is more interested in the well-being of each individual (i.e. health, safety, respect, happiness) than how they chose to present themselves that day. I waited almost 3 weeks before buying my first pair of local boots and a jacket because I wanted to make sure that I found a style that I liked that would allow me to blend in more comfortably.

Although I’m sure many of us are starting to find a good balance between fitting in and being ourselves, I have one friend who has chosen the “I stick out like a sore thumb” life  – and it’s been incredible to see how that life is serving her well! Erika is one of my closest friends here, and luckily lives 5 blocks away. One day, she decided that, as a senior, this is probably her last chance to do almost whatever she wanted…so she dyed her hair highlighter green! And I honestly think it has been one of the bravest, fun decisions anyone in this program has made. In her blog, Erika in South America (which includes pictures of her hair!), she notes “I’m honestly not sure if this will help me blend into Argentine society more or less.” And with this awareness, that she has opted for the path less taken, has:

  • made it easier for me to spot her in the street when we meet up
  • given her major street credibility (people in bars or in las calles find her easy to talk to)
  • helped older ladies re-live their younger selves vicariously through her

So for those who are thinking about studying abroad and who are currently studying abroad, I hope that you may eventually find a good balance between being yourself while living at ease in a new country.






Tiếng Việt+English+.. ¿Español?

Time July 20th, 2015 in College Study Abroad, First Generation Scholars | No Comments by

What does it mean to be an international citizen? Does is mean that you are able to navigate in another country without speaking the native language? Does it mean being able to speak the language? Does it require one day, or one year to live in another country to be culturally literate? Or could you live in your home country and still become an international citizen according the company and conversations that you have? Read More »